At the height of its failure, every day was Altamont for the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the San Francisco outfit founded in 1990 by Anton Newcombe, the Klaus Kinski of psychedelic rock. Just in time for this 20th anniversary overhaul of Ondi Timoner’s breakthrough documentary, the BJM were back in the news as recently as November 2023, when the first night of an Australian tour ended in a riot. That the riot was confined to the stage, and played out in front of a dumbfounded audience, is DIG! XX in a nutshell, a welcome return for a film that no less an authority than Dave Grohl calls, in a specially filmed new intro, “the greatest rock ’n’ roll documentary of all time.”
It helps to have a working knowledge of the two bands it features — the BJM and Portland alt-rockers The Dandy Warhols — but DIG! XX works on a meta level too, as a textual interrogation of rock ’n’ roll itself. Second time round, it becomes all the more apparent that Timoner’s film had its roots in another project; called The Cut, it was supposed to follow 10 unsigned bands as they navigated the music industry. There are traces of that movie that carry over — DIG! XX may now be seen as a gravestone for the ’90s, charting in real time what we now know to have been the demise of corporate rock — but with an extra 40 minutes, this anniversary edition is more of what it always was: a character study.
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That character is Newcombe, a troubled poet and would-be messiah. Ironically, Newcombe was born in 1967, the summer of love, a year of chemical excess that, had he been born in 1940, would have very likely seen him one-up the actual Brian Jones and initiate the 27 Club (as the film shows, he likes to be ahead of the curve). Considered a visionary by some, notably the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor, who narrates, Newcombe is also 40 miles of bad road, a rough terrain that can be seen more clearly now, in the rear-view mirror of 20 years.
Added to the mix for the reissue is Joel Gion, the BJM’s court jester, who refers to himself, quite accurately, as “Anton’s tambourine-wielding sidekick.” Gion is to the BJM what the ravens are to London’s Tower of London, although his exact role in the band is never really explained, even after all this time. Gion promises us the inside scoop, but his commentary is much more sensitive than sensational, recalling the band’s early days with a sense of melancholy (“We had something going for a while, and it was exciting”).
Returning to the film, at a time when DVD commentaries have somehow gone the way of the dodo, Timoner has augmented rather than extended, keeping the rough structure of the original but adding more depth to it. Newcombe becomes more of a yardstick in this respect; we know what the Dandy Warhols want — success and money — and even they seem surprised when they finally get it. Newcombe, though, is a mystery, a prolific songwriter who, in a key early scene, blows the band’s entire tour budget on sitars. “I’m not for sale,” he says. “The Beatles were for sale. I give it away.”
As per the original cut, DIG! XX tells the two band’s parallel stories. In the early days, the DWs are seen to be unmarketable — as Taylor explains, the music industry of old claimed to be more interested in careers than hits, but would pull the plug if no hits were forthcoming. The BJM, by contrast, are known to be unmanageable. Like, literally. But somehow, everyone in this movie, and in the audience, starts to root for the brooding, charismatic Newcombe, even forgiving some of his more serious transgressions — like sending shotgun shells to the Dandy Warhols — on the generous understanding that he’s trying to foster a rivalry like the Britpop war between Blur and Oasis (the only reference that dates this movie). “He said, ‘If I wanted to kill you guys, I woulda already did it,” reports the Dandy Warhols’ very tolerant Zia McCabe.
The brilliance of Dig! in the first place is that it was about something other than music. The Dandy Warhols coveted the BJM’s druggy car-crash cool, and the BJM had green eyes for the Dandy Warhols’ free-market license, if not their hard cash. This outstanding reinterpretation reflects that theme of art and commerce much more broadly, being an arguably more truthful document than Peter Jackson’s revisionist account of The Beatles’ break-up in his 2021 series Get Back. What unites everyone in this still-engrossing movie is that they do what they do because, a) it’s all they can do, and b) it’s all they want to do. As one of the BJM’s many, illustrious fallen puts it, “I was in it for the history.”
Title: Dig! XX
Festival (Section): Sundance (40th Edition Celebration)
Director: Ondi Timoner
Running time: 2 hr 26 min
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